Oct. 2, 2004
By Jim Sumner
Blue Devil Weekly
Fifty years later, the score still has the capacity to impress: Duke 34 Nebraska 7. In the Orange Bowl no less. And it was no fluke. Duke could and did compete with anybody in the middle 1950s.
Duke's 1954 team, which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a reunion this weekend, was characterized by speed, skill and balance. This was still the heyday of single-platoon football. Star quarterback Jerry Barger, a senior from Statesville, was also star defensive back Jerry Barger. Linemen like Fred Campbell and Ralph Torrance went from offense to defense after every punt. Barger and halfback Bob Pascal handled the punting. Reserve lineman Jim Nelson was the placekicker. No specialists here.
Duke started the season ranked 19th in the AP poll. After a 52-0 laugher over Pennsylvania, the Devils jumped to seventh. Duke's home opener was a defensive slugfest against Tennessee that brought back memories of the classic Wallace Wade-Robert Neyland matchups of the 1930s. Duke capped an 88-yard drive in the first quarter with a 10-yard run by Pascal. Nelson converted to make the score 7-0. The Vols took the second-half kickoff and drove 91 yards for a touchdown. The last 27 came on a run by future Pittsburgh Steeler Tom Tracy. Tracy went from hero to goat in a hurry, as he missed the extra point. Duke's defense maintained the 7-6 win, aided by two interceptions by sophomore back Sonny Jurgensen.
Ranked sixth, Duke then traveled north to visit fifth-ranked Purdue. The home team was led by sensational sophomore quarterback Len Dawson, who had thrown for eight touchdowns in his first two games, four in an upset win over Notre Dame. Duke shut down Dawson, holding him to 47 yards passing. Touchdowns by Bryant Aldridge and Barger gave Duke a 13-0 led at intermission.
With a huge road win in their grasp, Duke blinked. Duke stopped Purdue on fourth down but saw an offside penalty keep the drive alive. Purdue scored. Then Barger intercepted a pass intended for giant Purdue end Lamar Lundy but was called for interference. "I don't think I touched him," Barger recalls, "but he was so big he wouldn't have felt me anyhow." Purdue capitalized again and tied the score at 13-13. Jurgensen preserved the tie with an interception at the goal line as the game ended.
Coach Bill Murray was not happy. "We had more bad breaks in the second half than you'd normally have all season," he told the press after the game. "I'm not criticizing the officials but it seemed every time there was a close call, it went against us."
Duke returned home Oct. 16 to face 18th-ranked Army. The Cadets weren't the only formidable visitors in the state that week. Hurricane Hazel had ravaged much of the state the day before the game. Army had trouble getting into Durham and apparently took out their frustrations on the home team. An overflow crowd of 42,500 saw Duke struggle. Two fumbles stalled Duke early and the Devils' defense was unable to stop the Army running game, which piled up 378 yards. Duke trailed 21-0 in the third quarter before mounting a comeback. Bernie Blaney scored on a 28-yard run and Pascal followed with a 64-yard score, but Duke could come no closer. Army tacked on a late score for a 28-14 win.
Duke got back on track with a 21-7 win over North Carolina State in its ACC opener. The next week Duke, now ranked 16th, hosted Bobby Dodd's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in one of the more memorable games in school history. Tech almost duplicated Army's performance, jumping to a 20-0 lead in the middle of the third quarter.
In the 1950s, a 20-0 lead in the third quarter was close to insurmountable. But Murray kept the team calm, telling them to keep plugging away and they would get some breaks.
Murray was right. Barger started mixing some passing plays with Duke's option attack. Three passes, the last a 12-yard scoring toss to Jerry Kocourek, helped make the score 20-7. Duke recovered a fumble at the Tech 35 but couldn't move. Barger was roughed on the punt. "My friends said I should have gotten an Oscar for that one," Barger recalls. "I made sure the officials knew I had been hit." Duke capitalized on the second chance with a short TD run by Aldridge and it was 20-14 with 12:15 left.
Tech was unable to move and kicked to the Duke 18 with nine minutes left. A delay of game penalty moved the ball to the 13. Duke marched down the field, mixing runs and passes. A halfback option pass from Pascal to Ed Post picked up a big first down. Duke fumbled twice, recovering one and breathing a sigh of relief when the other went out of bounds. Faced with fourth-and-two at the Tech 16, Aldridge picked up the first down by inches. Four plays later Aldridge picked up another first down by inches. Post scored on a sweep from the four with 50 seconds left and Nelson's extra point gave Duke the 21-20 win. Pascal credits Barger for his leadership in the comeback. "Jerry was just great. He was a real sparkplug. He just kept us going."
Duke followed this dramatic win with one of the worst games of the Murray era. Playing Navy in the Oyster Bowl in Norfolk, the flat Devils were routed 40-7, giving up almost 500 yards in total offense. "It was just one of those games," says Barger. "Nothing worked and it just snowballed. It was my worst game."
After the Navy game Duke was 4-2-1 and unranked for the first time that season. But the Devils regrouped and rallied for a big stretch run. Duke jumped to a 21-0 lead over Wake Forest and withstood a Deacons' comeback for a 28-21 win. In a preview of his next 20 years, Jurgensen hit Post with a 65-yard bomb. Duke followed with a 26-7 win over South Carolina, a game in which Pascal, Barger and Post all threw touchdown passes.
Duke completed its regular season with a 47-12 mauling of archrival UNC. Pascal scored three touchdowns, Barger got a pair of interceptions and Duke cruised to an undefeated ACC season. The 47 points remains the most points scored by Duke in this series. Barger remembers that "we were thinking about the Orange Bowl but the big motivation was beating Carolina. We had lots of North Carolinians on the team and we wanted to win bragging rights." Pascal agrees. "Any time you can roll over Carolina, no score is big enough."
The ACC had an interesting bowl arrangement in its first few years. The champion went to the Orange Bowl to play a Big Seven team, while everybody else stayed home. Duke and Maryland didn't play each other in either 1953 or 1954 and the undefeated Terps had represented the league after the 1953 season. Maryland had a tie blemish their conference mark in 1954 so Duke received the conference bid. Duke's opponent was not undefeated Oklahoma. The Big Seven had a no-repeat rule and second-place Nebraska got the nod. Pascal says, "I'll always wonder what might have happened. I'm not saying we could have beaten Oklahoma but I think we matched up real well with them. We had the speed to stay with them."
Nebraska was a good team in 1954 but they were not the behemoth they would later become. Duke had a surprisingly easy time with the Cornhuskers. "Coach Murray was all business," says Barger. "We went down there with a purpose. " Nebraska was stunned by Duke's intensity. The line opened huge holes for Pascal, Aldridge and Barger and Duke's option game was operating at peak efficiency. Nebraska tried to exploit Duke's 165-pound defensive end Tracy Moon but without success. Pascal scored from seven yards out early in the second quarter. Following an Aldridge interception, Barger hit Kocourek for a score late in the half.
Nebraska closed to 14-7 in the third quarter but a 65-yard touchdown drive made the score 20-7. Fourth-quarter touchdowns by reserves Nick McKeithan and Sam Ebert closed out the scoring. Duke ended the game with an impressive 23-6 edge in first downs and a 370 to 110 advantage in total offensive yardage. Pascal rushed for 91 yards on nine carries, while Barger completed 7-of-9 passes. Duke ended the season ranked 14th.
Barger, Pascal and Torrance made first-team All-ACC, while Aldridge made second team. Barger ended the season with 521 yards passing, a league-leading six interceptions on defense (Jurgensen had five), and a 31.5 yard punting average. He was named ACC player of the year. Duke led the league with 917 passing yards.
The 1954 team will gather in Durham for a 50th anniversary reunion this Oct. 1-2 during Homecoming weekend, secure in the knowledge that they produced some of the high-water marks in Duke football history.